Raise your hand if you’ve ever gotten one of those weird emails from a Nigerian citizen or an American- based overseas person asking for a short term “loan” that would be repaid 10x over, or telling you to invest in a “can’t miss” opportunity that will make you a millionaire? More than likely, we marked it as “spam” and deleted it. Sadly, this type of ruse is now being used by cyber swindlers on unsuspecting victims in the digital dating world.
Before you stop reading this post because “you’re way too smart to be fooled by these hucksters”, stop!!! According to Barbara Sluppick, founder of the 15-year old nonprofit Romancescams.com, about 60,000 reports from men and women, young and old were recorded. Warned Sluppick, “Victims are not just lonely old women. There’s doctors, lawyers, police officers.” Need further proof of the magnitude of “sweetheart scams”? Data collected by the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (ICCC) shows that over $203 Million was loss by victims of romance scams in 2015. For 2016, losses resulting from these scams rose 23% to $120 Million for just the first six months of the year (and this isn’t even the unreported cases which the FBI suspects is quite significant given that victims are too embarrassed to report romance scams). In fact, the FBI ICCCC has stated that romance scams far exceed most other internet crimes that they track. To quote the great writer Emily Dickinson, “the heart wants what it wants”.
Ok, now that you’re seating up and reading this post, let’s learn more about sweetheart scams, especially how do these hucksters operate, ways that we can prevent it, and what to do if you’ve been duped.
The “419 Scams”:
What is the 419 Scam? No slander intended towards the citizens of Nigeria, but most romance scams originate and operate as a “shadow economy” in this West African area. So prevalent is these scams that it has been given its own name “The 419 Scam” which is a nod to the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code for Fraud (Section 419).
In its simplest form, romance scams are advance-fee frauds in which criminals make promises to unsuspecting strangers in exchange for some amount of money. This type of scam is nothing new, having first being conducted through printed letters, faxes, and then emails. With the popularity of dating apps (over 40 Million registered users), its anonymous nature, and the treasure trove of data in its sites, it’s no surprise that romance scams moved into the online dating world.
Who are the Primary Thieves of the 419 Scams?: The primary operators of the 419 Scam are young boys who are desperate for money and living in Nigeria and Ghana, or in countries that have a large community of West African expats such as Malaysia and Britain. Known as the “Yahoo Boys” in reference to these thieves’ preference to create yahoo email accounts for their nefarious actions, these cyber swindlers have created a sophisticated organizational system to bilk unsuspecting dating app victims. According to Brian Hay, an Australian who created a special unit to track scammers and has developed a close relationship with Nigeria’s Economic Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) which allowed him to inspect government information, these Yahoo Boys have created playbooks that script out how they will scam money from victims months in advance. Like a corporation, they have separate departments that specialize in a specific tasks. For example, some boys are assigned the phone work, while others the writing or computer hacking tasks. A special unit specializes in the late phases of the scam in which they impersonate bank officials or law enforcement officers to deal with victims who are trying to get their money back.
How Does the 419 Scam Work? The 419 Scam consists of three stages: (1) Creation of fake profiles and infiltration into the dating sites, (2) “Grooming”, and (3) Asking unsuspecting victims for money.
Creation of Fake Profiles and Infiltration into Dating Sites: Using stolen credit cards, readily available data from the internet, and stolen pictures from Social Media and the internet, these scammers bombard the dating apps with fake profiles. This practice is also known as “catfishing”. Using fake profiles, these scammers “match” with other dating singles to begin their “grooming” process detailed below. For profiles aimed to swindle women, the fake profile is set up as an older, financially secure gentleman who often times are in the military or has an engineering profession. Their profile photo will usually depict a handsome, clean cut, fit male with some flecks of gray in his hair. For men, it’s a lot easier. All they need is a photo of an alluring young woman (no shocker here!). Whether men or women, young or old, the targeted individuals share one common trait…loneliness. Scammers select lonely individuals because it makes it easier to win over these individuals with attention and conversation. As one AARP article noted, “The lonely heart is a vulnerable heart”. Although scammers usually initiate the conversation, their preference is for the victim to initiate contact because that means that something in their fake profile appealed to the victim, thereby making it easier to con them.
“Grooming”: Once the scammer has successfully developed a relationship with their victim, he will begin the “grooming” stage. In this phase, the scammer will use personal information that they have gleaned through research and conversation with the victim. Knowing their victim’s everyday life allows the scammer to mix with his “sweet talking” compliments and texts which allows him to ingratiate himself to the victim. Known as the “game”, this process is the heart of the scam that requires patience and extensive labor as it goes on for weeks, and even months. Adept at reading people, the scammer creates an idealized person embodying the characteristics that the victim desires. In their article “Are You Real? Inside an Online Dating Scam”, Doug Shadel and David Dudley explain that because the individual never meet face-to-face, the scammer can control how he presents himself. As the victim is “groomed” through the scammer’s intense attention and daily communication of love and flattery, the victim develops such a strong attachment that she unknowingly will do anything to help her “idealized man” so that she can keep the “magical” relationship.
The “Ask”: Once the scammer knows that he has “hooked” his prey, he begins the final stage of his scam, “The Ask”. Interspersed between flowery words of affection, admiration and love, the scammer will ask his victim for money to help him in an “emergency” such as an unexpected health or business issue, while promising to repay it. He will profess to have the money but claim that it is unavailable, citing a myriad of reasons such as his account being frozen by the government, or is illiquid at the current time. At this point, the madly in-love victim whom the scammer had “love bombed” is powerless to realize that she is being scammed, and sends the requested money. The scammer will continue this cycle of daily declarations of love and request for yet another round of money for his new “emergency”. If the victim starts to question the relationship, the scammer will not only ramp up his “love bombing”, but promise to meet in person. He will even give a date for his visit, and other information related to his visit. But, as the date for his visit approaches, a new “emergency” requires him to postpone the visit. This charade continues until the scammer has probably received thousands of dollars (with some reported to be in the range of $100k to $500k!), or the victim finally calls his “bluff”. The “relationship” eventually comes to a screeching halt one day, with the scammer “disappearing” entirely. This disappearance with no explanation and notice is also known as “ghosting”.
The “Aftermath”: Having been fleeced by a scammer, the impact fora victim is not only financial, but also emotional. Although the victim can intellectualize the scam, she nonetheless must suffer the “death” of what she thought was a promising relationship that she so fervently and passionately believed in.
Grieving: Like the end or death of someone or something, the best approach to recovery is for the victim to experience the “grieving process”. Embarrassed for falling to a scam, some victims will unfairly blame themselves. Accepting that she is truly a victim of a con artist is essential for getting past this chapter of life. Participating in support groups like romancescams.org are helpful in processing and accepting this unfortunate situation.
Denial: While some victims blame themselves, others will deny that the scam ever happened. For this group, “If it didn’t happen, it never existed”. Taking the “denial” approach is counterproductive and evidence has shown that these victims will get scammed again.
Digital Vigilantism: Yet, another group of victims will become like Charles Bronson, taking on the task of hunting down their scammer, even if it means giving more money to the scammer in hopes of tracking him. This practice of “scam baiting” in which the victim has now become the “hunter” is known as “Digital Vigilantism”.
Reporting: While reporting this cybercrime won’t bring back the money that was scammed, it will help in any dispute over accounting charges. Therefore, victims should report their scams to governmental entities like the FBI ICCC, banks, and credit card companies. Go here for a list phone numbers of the agencies and entities that a victim can contact. They should also check their bank accounts, credit card statements for any suspicious activities.
How to Prevent Romance Scams: Ben Franklin’s famous saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” certainly applies to romance scams. Preventing this scam from happening to you or your loved one is really the only fool-proof way to ensure that it doesn’t happen to you. Once a scammer has snared his victim, the game is over. There are three ways to protect against this scam: (1) Researching the background of the suspected cyber swindler; (2) Regularly checking in with your parents or anyone that may be vulnerable to scams; and (3) Recognizing the “Ask” before the scammer asks.
Research the “Person” in the Profile: Although dating sites like Match, Tinder, eHarmony employ software detection of banned individuals and check the National Sex Offender to curb scammers, it’s your job to proactively research who you’re giving your heart to. There are many publicly available data that daters can use to verify the identity of a person: google search the person’s name to see if it comes up anywhere else (Linkedin, Facebook, etc.); google maps to get a feel of the swindlers neighborhood; and check governmental entities like the FBI ICCC who may have a list of reported cyber swindlers. There are also private services that will create a full background report on anyone or any group (ala the “Steele Dossier”!).
Regularly Check in With Your Parents or Other Potentially Vulnerable Individuals: Evidence shows that online dating criminals will often target older victims because they (a) usually have some wealth; (b) less likely to detect deception; (c) are usually at home which means they will answer the phone (most cyber criminals prefer to proceed beyond online to the phone); and (d) are less tech savvy. Talking to your parents on a daily basis is not just a nice thing to do; it could prevent your parent from being cyber swindled. Regular contact with seniors will help prevent them from becoming lonely and vulnerable which is exactly how the cyber criminal manipulates his victim with adoring companionship. It will also be easier for you to spot any changes to your parents’ behavior (such as fear of losing their home) that would indicate a potential scam.
Recognizing the “Ask”: Once the criminal feels that he has gained your trust and that you are firmly bonded to him, he will start to pressure you to do things, particularly sending him money for an emergency. In no event should you send money!!! There is no other clearer signal or red flag that your “boyfriend” is a swindler than the “Ask”. If you do send money, never do it by wire transfer, electronic currency, or money order because the bank or financial institution cannot and will not return your loss money. Similarly, do not accept any money from your “boyfriend” or deposit it into another account. This act is “money laundering” which the government can prosecute you because it involved the transportation of “ill gotten” money.
“Nobody likes being taken as a fool”. Hopefully, understanding how criminals operate romance scams; how to prevent being scammed; and what to do if you are scammed will help you or any of your loved ones from being a victim of a sweetheart scam. As Charles Dickens once said, “There are strings in the human heart that had better not be vibrated.”